Thoughtful Music

I adore Max Richter's haunting album Blue Notebooks, especially this track.  One reviewer says:

Most striking of all is "Shadow Journal." … The piece sounds so much like thinking, like turning inward, that the cawing birds at the end of the track bring a jarring end to its reverie. 

It often seems that certain music puts me into a more "thoughtful" frame of mind.  But I worry; does it actually make me more thoughtful, or does it just give me the impression that I've been thoughtful?  Does music spur me to deep thoughts, or just make me feel that whatever thoughts I have are deep?   And if it helps, does it do any more than just make me feel relaxed or motivated? 

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  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    Similarly, there are times when I feel unusually creative and productive, and feel like writing something. However, often at these times I can’t actually come up with anything that I’d like to write, and after a while the feeling fades. This leads to the conclusion that I’m not actually creative at these times, I just feel like I were. Certain kinds of art (music) included sometimes produce this feeling.

    In your case, wouldn’t it be useful to keep some kind of a journal of the thoughts you’ve had while feeling thoughtful, so that you can later on look at the record and see if you’ve been thinking about anything particularly deep?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I recall a study about a programming problem, in which some of the programmers were given classical music to listen to, and some not. Both groups wrote programs that correctly implemented the specified transformations; but while half of all the programmers in the control group noticed that the series of transforms just reproduced the original input, very few of those in the music-listening group did so.

    I don’t know if this result replicates beyond classical music and beyond programming, but since then I don’t listen to music while working, more’s the pity.

  • steven

    Slow music makes me super-nervous, sort of like being forced to walk everywhere at half speed.

  • Daniel

    “Does music spur me to deep thoughts, or just make me feel that whatever thoughts I have are deep?”

    Based on the analogy of marijuana, where these effects are more pronounced: it is a bit of the former, and much more of the latter.

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    I enjoy listening to music when I play Go, but I turn it off when I need to read deeply.

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    From my experience, music robs of attention, but helps to persevere in uncomfortable modes of learning. Much of the value in breadth of knowledge comes from knowing what’s available, from points of view attainable only through studying the stuff, but it doesn’t look like catching every detail is important. So, I listen to music when studying something I can’t feel emotionally attached to, even if I expect that the knowledge may be potentially important. On the other hand, training the imagination on more clearly important tools and figuring out things on my own just doesn’t work with music. I can’t coordinate the thoughts with the same clarity when distracted by music if they aren’t being led by a text.

  • frelkins

    does it do any more than just make me feel relaxed or motivated?

    Well, for the overclocked, relaxation & focus could be an important aid in and of itself.

    The problem is that few high-quality studies have been done on this and so the case remains uncertain. One recent Japanese study showed that 5 men and 5 women listening to classical music while taking an IQ test – specifically the highly structured music of Mozart – got better scores than a control group with no music. Other studies have done this also with a group listening to the less structured, more emotional music of Beethoven vs. silence vs. Mozart.

    While the Japanese study seems to have a good methodology, the group was small, so of uncertain value. A similar IQ study done in California with Alzheimer’s patients shows good results, but suffers again from sample size.

    There are likewise small fMRI studies that show brain activity when listening to Mozart could be conducive to improved thinking and spatio-temporal problem-solving. A Chicago neurologist has also done studies playing Mozart for people with epilepsy – these people had extremely severe conditions, which noticeably improved while listening to Mozart – their seizures markedly reduced.

    This may be the best study so far – it suggests that any highly-structured music with slow-to-medium tempo repetitions in the 20-30 second range may help sync brain patternings, which likewise tend to occur in these ranges.

    But the effect occurs only when actually listening to the music and doesn’t seem to last more than a few minutes beyond the duration of the piece. Also, the effect seems confined to steady, highly-structured pieces with a certain type of repetition and sense of pulse – Mozart is the test case these studies use – not romantic pieces, not modern minimalism, and certainly not hip-hop, punk or jazz!

    However there is no doubt the popularized “Mozart effect” for children is completely overblown and probably false.

    In my personal opinion, Richter is a modern master, and The Blue Notebooks is a crystalline masterpiece. On the Nature of Daylight especially seems to share some of the Mozart-like characteristics, although I haven’t taken a metronome to it. Thus it is possible that it could improve certain types of reasoning thru this hypothesized effect.

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    Familiarity might matter. There should be a study where the subjects bring their own music.

  • Justin

    Hmm, the question seems to depend on how you define deep thoughts, and whether you think those thoughts must exist post thought, that they must produce some thing after they occur, rather than having had produced some thing at the time of the thought itself, perhaps some essential insight to bring forward into the future that yields outcomes in other arenas (besides in your head/mindset for a moment or two).

    Have you listened (and watched) Bill Frisell’s Richter 858?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    I think it depends. I think people that have studied music are often unable to listen to background music to enter a contemplative mood. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are musicians that read your blog to enter a contemplative state. One thing I’m curious about since you’re a triple specialist: like crop rotation, can you break from thinking about econ by thinking about physics -and break from thinking about both by thinking about programming? Or does your brain process all three as “work” and keep them as part of the same tally that it needs a break from?

  • tim

    My guess is that it doesn’t make you think that your thoughts are deep so much as it makes you remember what it feels like to have deep thoughts, or generates the same emotional ambiance as deep thinking. Or at least I think that’s what happens with me. Whether or not it also has other effects, such as encouraging deep thinking, is hard to say and probably varies a lot from person to person.

  • http://michaelfoody.com Michael Foody

    I love the blue notebooks so much. It’s one of the albums that I listen to more than any other. I’ve tried listening to some of Max Richter’s other stuff and it didn’t do it for me in the same way. I’ve tried looking for similar music and haven’t really found anything else with the same appeal. I’d be delighted to hear any recommendations.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    OK, the consensus here seems to be that music mostly relaxes and motivates you and gives you a feeling of depth, as opposed to otherwise helping you think deep thoughts.

  • James Andrix

    I’m not sure about Depth, But I listen to fast music to keep myself moving (cognitively).

  • sohaib

    Good way to test yourself might be to just start reading and then see if you happen to find more things to be more profound. After doing this a couple of times you would be able to get rid of random chance. If you are finding every other phrase to be profound, then it is likely the music deluding you.

    This is what I did with marijuana. I got high and started going through my RSS feeds and noticed I was flagging everything as important. Later on when I went back to it, I realized not much was all that special.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Unreal. Thanks!

    Probably depends on whether you’re trying to think about something specific or generate new thoughts.
    To me it seems to not help the former, but probably help the latter. Then maybe not above average for sitting quietly with my eyes closed – more experimentation needed.

    I’m synaesthetic though, which may make a difference – music is accompanied by colours and shapes, so reminds me of other things – thus it’s like watching a movie, in that concepts that you wouldn’t have thought of are tossed into the mix, generating new questions and lines of thought. Maybe this happens with sounds for the rest of you too – I’ve no idea.

  • frelkins

    @Michael Foody

    recommendations

    I am very partial not only Max Richter, but also to an Icelandic technoprogressive composer in a similar vein, Johann Johannsson. I often listen to his Fordlandia – an 11-part composition that is best described as an ode to space flight and rocket-building – as well as his still beautiful but quirkier IBM 1401 – A Users Manual, a shorter set of pieces written to commemorate the first computer that ever came to Iceland, said IBM. I am particularly fond of Parts 3 & 4, devoted to the Card Read Punch and Magnetic Tape Unit.

    Just as The Blue Notebooks is multi-part meditation on a small passage of Kafka, the IBM 1401 seems meant as an expression of the beauty of computers and how remote Iceland really was opened to the world at this time via technology. The unusual modern dance piece created for IBM 1401 can be seen on youtube and certainly emphasizes this sense of “being born, coming to life.”

    For those who like something a little more electronic, I also have high regard for Ulrich Schnauss’ A Strangely Isolated Place, which is mid-tempo ambient. Many people who love Marconi Union will love Schnauss too.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1206454191s18910/ Dan Erwin

    Music, to me is like story or tradition. In the very best sense of the discipline, it tells me my history. It tells me who I am and am not. It tells me what I can and cannot do? It opens the gates of restraint/constraint to creativity. And above all, it is connection to the past, present and future.

    Although I groove on John Adams, Aaron Jay Kernia, Bernstein,and John Corigliano, I also respond profoundly to Mahler, especially his songs for orchestra and voice. Mahler seems to haunt the universe with his use of the English Horn. I experience Brahms and Richard Strauss as the gift of the gods.

    Including exercise, nutrition, sex or a good read, nothing relieves my fears and inserts me back into reality as well as music.

    Wayne Booth, the brilliant Chicago rhetorician has written something to the effect that music has reason that other languages lack.

  • komponisto

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are musicians that read your blog to enter a contemplative state.

    [raises hand].

    Also for relaxation/enjoyment. (I look forward to Eliezer’s posts like a kid looks forward to their favorite TV show.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Dan, does music really have “reason that other languages lack”, or does it just make us feel that way?

  • delmot

    Re: recommendations – Johann Johannsson seconded. Also Eluvium – his albums have switched between simple piano pieces and gently hypnotic guitar feedback loops, but his last one, Copia, is more fully orchestrated and well-rounded. William Basinski does very subtle and minimal pieces – The Disintegration Loops are deeply affecting and have quite a backstory – http://www.hauntedink.com/25/basinski-disintegration.html
    Finally Labradford, they have been lumped in with the post-rock movement but they don’t really share that quiet/loud dynamic, sticking just with the quiet. Their last two albums, E Luxo So and Fixed::Context, are both great.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    It seems clear that depending on our internal state, we have different ways of processing our thoughts and considerations about the external world. Give us some bad news, and ask about the future and we’ll say something different than giving us good news and then doing the same. I suspect music has a power to invoke these internal state changes in a fairly general fashion. The state we switch to is likely a function of our personal history with music of similar pattern. So I would propose that there is some variety of annealing going on that may help us make breakthroughs. That is, we may need to shift our internal state to get the key insight for our ‘deep thought’ and music might, roughly by chance, get us there. Without the music, we could spend too much time in a single mode (which I think is also a role of boredom).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    I’ve been sampling the music suggestions here. They are very nice (including the OP). Thanks.

  • drederick

    Which track is Robin linking to above? I don’t have a real audio player and the file name is not very descriptive.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin,
    My stab at the music/language->reason question is it may be hard to tell, because we may not have had geniuses of language equivalent to our geniuses of music (particularly Bach, and probably at least a couple other outliers).
    I can’t think of any literature that approaches the intellectual sophistication of Bach’s fugues. I know it’s a cliched example, but it seems to me to hold up.
    I have no intuition about if this is due to the medium or the practitioners.

  • drederick

    For anyone who likes this stuff, you may also like Clint Mansell, especially his soundtrack for The Foundtain.

    Here’s his song “Death is the Road to Awe”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihF_aXi-Huk

    • Aron

      Yeah that’s a good one particularly once one has the visuals provided by the movie.

  • komponisto

    Listening to Robin’s link, I was reminded of Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” (performance here or here).

    With respect to Robin’s question(s), the only way to find out is to do a study of some kind. I would simply remind everyone that music is a form of Fun, and hence a terminal value in itself.

  • komponisto

    Hopefully:

    I can’t think of any literature that approaches the intellectual sophistication of Bach’s fugues.

    If you don’t mind my asking, do you know how to write fugues? (I’d like to make sure this judgement of yours isn’t an artifact of bias resulting from knowing how to compose English prose but not music, so that the latter seems more impressive.)

  • frelkins

    @dredrick

    I think it’s On the Nature of Daylight. There are many home videos for it on youtube. Try: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rluU6BGpKw

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    music is a form of Fun, and hence a terminal value in itself.

    Readers: every time you declare a new terminal value, God kills a puppy. So think of the puppies and introduce a new terminal value only when it is really important.

  • Emil Gilliam

    @Robin:

    “OK, the consensus here seems to be that music mostly relaxes and motivates you and gives you a feeling of depth, as opposed to otherwise helping you think deep thoughts.”

    While music is playing, I can’t do any serious intellectual work (unrelated to the music). It demands too much of my attention, and it doesn’t help that I find the notion of “background music” distasteful. (My background: programmer and classical pianist.)

    “… does music really have “reason that other languages lack”, or does it just make us feel that way?”

    It may not have reason that other languages lack, but to me music can induce mental states and emotions that I know no words for. Learning that such nameless mental states even exist is an educational experience all by itself — no drugs required.

  • rw

    Do mathematicians or theoretical physicists listen to music while thinking?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    komponisto, as a general principle I prefer not to compromise what I hope is my anonymity. But I think google search will reveal, like I said, that my position is a bit of cliche (although I think still valid).

  • frelkins

    @rw

    Do mathematicians or theoretical physicists listen to music while thinking?

    My impression from talking to real mathematicians is no; but in my experience, all the physicists I knew did and do – mostly classical. Many computer programmers I have known do – but only certain kinds. Many genres are indeed distracting.

    @Robin

    does music really have “reason that other languages lack

    Western music does have a certain kind of perceptible mathematical order that spoken languages lack. If this can be called reason, then yes.

  • Ulrik

    @rw: “Do mathematicians or theoretical physicists listen to music while thinking?”

    I’m a mathematician, and I prefer not to listen to music when doing math. Especially when I have to be creative working on a difficult problem, music will distract me. Other times, for instance when typing something up, listening to music can be very recreative.

    When I do listen to music (to take a break from thinking), I listen mostly to old guys like Bach or Chopin, or maybe psychedelic rock or new indie stuff. I will try to sample the recommendations given here.

  • komponisto

    Hollerith, the point I was making was that the value of music does not reside in whether it has some salutary effect on other forms of cognition. Maybe you don’t think music is important, in which case I beg to differ.

    Hopefully, I don’t dispute that your statement is a cliche. Sometimes cliches are the result of (widespread) bias. And how would revealing whether or not you’ve studied fugue compromise your anonymity?

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    komponisto, I acknowledge that music is important, useful. (Exception: some people do not find music rewarding or evocative; for those people to listen to music is probably not useful. Exception: like Eliezer says, listening to music while proving a theorem or writing a program probably degrades performance at those tasks.)

    I just wish you would search longer for instrumental reasons to listen to music before adding it as a terminal value. I know of good instrumental reasons, which sadly I do not have time to describe today. If I remember to describe them later, I will do so on my blog.

  • komponisto

    Perhaps it would be best, in this context, to regard my calling music a terminal value as a form of figurative language (similar to the way mathematicians use “set of measure zero” in ordinary conversation). I suppose it would be hasty for me or anyone else to claim it is a Terminal Value(TM), since those are rather hard to identify. I merely want to say that the value of music is more terminal and less instrumental than is implied by discussions like the above.

  • mjgeddes

    Me: What is the function of art?

    SAI_2100: Art is the output of reflection on the volitional domain. It is an expression of an emotional pattern, thus, art communicates agent motivations to others. Clearly then, its role is social.

    Me: Can art help you think?

    SAI_2100: Not directly. At least, not in the ‘intellectual’ sense of the word ‘think’. As I stated, art is a medium of communication for agent motivations, which is achieved via the manipulations of emotions in others.

    Me: And music?

    SAI_2100: Is a linear modality of emotional communication.

    Me: So music, doesn’t help you think deep thoughts, just makes you relaxed and motivated, as Hanson says?

    SAI_2100: ‘Just’? Hanson should not underestimate the importance of motivations! Indeed art is only operating on your emotions directly, but indirectly this can still be important in directing your thoughts towards coherent goals.

    Me: Please elaborate on what art actually is.

    SAI_2100: An analogy may help readers grasp the point. Just as, for instance, a software design is a human artifact which communicates an idealized model of the logical content of a system, so, for instance, is a piece of music a human artifact which communicates an idealized model of agent motivations

    Me: Good anlogy

    SAI_2100: Indeed. But this is relatively trivial. I now have 91 proofs of the Riemann hypothesis, and you are wasting time better spent studying my 89th. In fact, to help, I have composed a symphony in which the notes represent all the conscious experiences that can arise when grasping the proof and its lemmas. But I digress.

  • http://www.myspace.com/meauxdal zane ball

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are musicians that read your blog to enter a contemplative state.

    guilty as charged.

    SAI_2100: Indeed. But this is relatively trivial. I now have 91 proofs of the Riemann hypothesis, and you are wasting time better spent studying my 89th. In fact, to help, I have composed a symphony in which the notes represent all the conscious experiences that can arise when grasping the proof and its lemmas. But I digress.

    i like the words of “SAI_2100” but where the illusion becomes unbelievable is in the final response, and SAI’s implication that each “note” is representative of experiences. i think the harmony/dischord (or lack thereof) is more fundamentally important to the way in which the listener interprets those “agent motivations”. this is because the mind has little to do with a single note without context. much as a single word is relatively useless without context.

  • http://www.myspace.com/meauxdal zane ball

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are musicians that read your blog to enter a contemplative state.

    guilty as charged.

    SAI_2100: Indeed. But this is relatively trivial. I now have 91 proofs of the Riemann hypothesis, and you are wasting time better spent studying my 89th. In fact, to help, I have composed a symphony in which the notes represent all the conscious experiences that can arise when grasping the proof and its lemmas. But I digress.

    i like the words of “SAI_2100” but where the illusion becomes unbelievable is in the final response, and SAI’s implication that each “note” is representative of experiences. i think the harmony/dischord (or lack thereof) is more fundamentally important to the way in which the listener interprets those “agent motivations”. this is because the mind has little to do with a single note without context. much as a single word is relatively useless without context.

  • anonymous

    First of all: I have been listening to this album repeatedly for the last week, ever since this post showed up in my RSS reader and I listened to the sample.

    For me, music like this is a drug: it creates a heightened emotional state that I want to hang on to; I listen to it deliberately to induce this emotional state. (Not all music is suited to this purpose, and so that’s not the only reason I listen to music — but it is the reason I listen to music like this.)

    I hate to finish a book that affects me in the same way. But reading the same story again diminishes the effect; I’ve left the world of the story and going back is not the same — whereas I can put a piece of music on repeat and not leave that mental state until I want to. And fiction feels more artificial — the story isn’t real, and no going back to read it makes it any more real. Music doesn’t explicitly create a fictional world to escape to.

    I can’t listen to emotional music when I’m trying to do something requiring heavy thought, as it’s too distracting. Other music is fine as long as it has no understandable words; usually when I am writing it is Bach keyboard works. I don’t think listening to contemplative music actually puts me in a state to do better thinking. It does, though, make me want to do something myself that has an effect on the world outside me; it reminds me that people are capable of doing lovely things, and great things, and so I should be capable of it too.

    I note that I am a musician myself (only a hoobyist, now), but I am fortunate enough not to always have to listen with a critical ear. (Though it did take some time after doing codec listening tests not to be constantly drawn to the imperfections in lossy encoding anymore.) But I don’t read this blog to enter a contemplative state, unless changing my assumptions about things and giving me too many ideas to chew on counts…

    Finally, if you like this and want some more beautiful contemplative music, consider listening to Musica Celestis, by Aaron Jay Kernis — also Fratres, and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, both by Arvo Pärt.

  • Aron

    I’d like to note that Shutter island from Scorcese used On the Nature of Daylight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGtN3lpI2f4&feature=related

    I saw the movie and recognized it after having pursued the music from this post.